'The Biggest Loser' Trainer Erica Lugo On Why Eating Disorder Recovery Is a Lifelong Battle

Lugo opens up about realizing she needed to return to therapy for her eating disorder, even though she'd already made major progress.

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Erica Lugo would like to set the record straight: She was not in the throes of her eating disorder while appearing as a coach on The Biggest Loser in 2019. The fitness trainer was, however, experiencing a stream of intrusive thoughts she recognized as problematic and potentially dangerous.

"Binging and purging are what I did for less than a year, more than five years ago," she says. "One thing the media took out of context was they said I suffered from an eating disorder when I was on the show — I didn't suffer from an active eating disorder on the show, I suffered from the thoughts of an eating disorder on the show. There's a huge difference. As someone who has had an eating disorder, there's a celebration in your head when you hit a year purge-free. I could cry because I celebrated five years — and then read an article claiming I still had it. It's almost like a slap in the face to all the hard work I've done."

Although Lugo considers herself free of the binging and purging behaviors associated with bulimia, she's not immune to societal pressures or the unrealistic expectations placed on trainers to fit a stereotypical aesthetic. So when an Instagram troll left a comment on one of her posts a few weeks ago, she felt compelled to address it publicly. The comment in question? "You look big and not portioned. For someone who eats healthy and works out a lot you are big. You might want to not be a health coach." (

Lugo says the barb itself wasn't unique. She's been navigating unwelcome and uninformed commentary on her body since she lost more than 150 pounds, survived a thyroid cancer diagnosis, and transformed her life to become a certified personal trainer at the helm of an online training platform, Erica Love Fit — all while documenting her experience on social media. But when she awoke to that particular comment earlier this month, she saw it as a teachable moment.

"When someone made the comment that I'm big and I probably shouldn't be a health coach, I thought it was time to address the elephant in the room," she says. "I had gained 10 pounds since filming over two years because I went back to therapy because of those eating disorder thoughts. I needed to work on the thoughts and the actions. Someone may not actively be bulimic or anorexic, but that doesn't mean they don't have the thoughts or want to purge food or restrict food or work out or are being held a slave to their eating disorder thoughts. They don't just go away."

In retrospect, Lugo can spot some clear warning signs that her mind was starting to slip back to disordered territory, even though she never acted on the impulses to engage in bulimic behaviors.

"If you lose any kind of weight, you're always fearful of it coming back and you're always working to maintain your weight loss," she says. "I had my own internal pressure of, 'oh shit, now I definitely have to maintain this.' I was counting every little thing I ate and working out six days a week and getting X steps a day. It wasn't just a normal, 'oh I want to move and eat well,' it was, 'no, Erica, you need to do this,' and that's not who I am. I'm someone who's like, 'now that you've lost the weight, make sure you maintain it by moving your body and eating healthy, and if you have a piece of pizza, you have a piece of pizza and you move on.' That's why when I got done with the show I sought help again because for me to say, 'you have to stop at X calories or hit X amount of calorie burn on your watch,' that's not normal for me, and I knew that would snowball into old behaviors if I let it go."

She believes that 10-pound weight gain after returning to therapy at the start of this year was a healthy restoration. It was an effect of returning to a place of stability after becoming too rigid with calorie counting and exercising.

Lugo first sought out therapy nearly six years ago when she was actively binging and purging on a regular basis. "I had already lost all the weight, and I was in a really bad emotionally abusive relationship," she says. "This was also the time when Instagram had really started taking off, people started paying attention to 'influencers,' and 'snarking' on influencers became a really big thing. Between the pressures of this emotionally abusive relationship — the first relationship I'd been in since my divorce [in 2014] — and having gone through this major body transformation, I started reading these really awful online comments and it forced me to seek an outlet."

She continues, "That's when this eating disorder developed almost six years ago. I kept it a secret, it lasted a little less than a year, and it ended because I was honestly scared for my health. My heart started fluttering a little bit, and it terrified me." (The binge-and-purge cycles of bulimia can lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances that can affect heart function, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.)

Although therapy helped Lugo eventually break free from the behaviors of bulimia, her cancer diagnosis and the career whirlwind that followed took her attention away from ongoing self-care. "I got diagnosed with cancer the day after Thanksgiving in 2018, I had surgery in January 2019, radiation in March 2019, and then started on The Biggest Loser in August 2019," she says. "I had no time to care for myself and my mindset — it was just survival and then running on adrenaline, so I think I ignored everything I'd learned in therapy for so long that those old thought patterns started coming back. I let it go for over a year [and I think] that's what made it come back because I wasn't actively taking care of myself and my mentality. It just goes to show you that no matter what addiction or struggles you have, it's something you actively have to take care of because it can come back if you don't."

Lugo started noticing her mind slipping back into a troubling space while filming the show, but she managed to keep the behaviors at bay, calling upon the tools she'd developed in all her prior years of recovery. Still, the temptation to return to those behaviors was overwhelming.

"It was no one's pressure but my own, and actually everyone at the show, from the producers to the network, was amazing and always made me feel beautiful and great," she says. "I put that pressure on myself and those thoughts started coming back. I'd stopped therapy because I felt like I had it under control. But what people don't understand is, you may not actively have an eating disorder, but those thoughts never go away. It's something that will haunt you for the rest of your life. It's almost like a little devil in my head and when I look at a certain food, the devil will say, 'oh that's easily purgeable, that will come up easily,' or 'hey, eat this and purge it later — no one will know.' And that's something — I'm getting goosebumps even saying it now because I've never openly talked about it." (

The real turning point that inspired Lugo to seek support again came after a particularly grueling day on set. "I was exhausted," she says. "It had been a 15-hour day, we'd lost the challenge, and I was still new to filming — no one knew I was on the show, so I had to keep it a secret so I had no one to vent to because I had to keep it under wraps. I ate a slice of pizza because we had these late-night snacks on set, and on my drive home, which was about 45 minutes, I kept thinking, 'you can go home and purge and no one will know.' And I sat in the bathroom with my knees tucked up to my chest all night, just thinking, 'Erica, you worked for five years, why are these thoughts coming back?' So when I got back from filming and the media tour, I knew I needed to go back into therapy."

There was another startling turn of events that pushed Lugo back toward therapy, too. "One of my husband's ex-girlfriends actually passed away from an eating disorder last year," she says. "She died at the age of 38-years-old. It's just not worth doing it. When I made five years purge-free and she passed away just last year, it was a huge wake-up call for me to continue my recovery and my journey and to share it with people."

When the pandemic hit, Lugo used the mandated pause on her professional trajectory to recommit to her personal healing. "I had all that time to dedicate to online therapy," she says. "So since the lockdown is really when I've been going back to therapy because this never goes away. Just because you have all the tools doesn't mean like, 'okay it's gone.'"

Lugo says that over the past year and a half, she's managed to find her footing again in terms of fighting back against the eating disorder thoughts. "I'm in a much happier and healthier place and I'm no longer a prisoner to food choices or working out all the time because I let that pressure go," she says. "I thought it was time to open up and I want to bring more awareness and light to this because I know if I suffered in silence, I can't imagine how many other people are suffering in silence." (

Despite the resurgence of disordered thoughts during filming, Lugo says she values the platform The Biggest Loser has afforded her. "I was so grateful to get on the show because for the first time, there was a trainer who didn't have six-pack abs and who did have loose skin and who wasn't a size 0 or 2," she says. "It went against the norm, and I was excited for that. When we're going through social media, we always hear, 'it's a highlight reel and you're not seeing behind the scenes,' and people did start noticing that I put on weight since I was on TV, but what they don't realize is that I'm the happiest and healthiest I've ever been, and they don't realize that there are so many different battles people are internalizing and keeping to themselves."

For others who may be struggling with an eating disorder or any form of problematic thoughts and behaviors around food, exercise, weight, or body image, Lugo recommends seeking out resources, such as NEDA. "One of my favorite phrases is, 'sickness thrives in secrets,' and the longer you keep the secret to yourself and refuse to seek help, the harder it will become to be the happier, healthier version of you," she says. "And 'healthier' does not mean a pants size; it means how are you living? How are you actively loving yourself? Or are you being sick in secret? You can seek help and everyone struggles to some degree, whether that means restricting calories or working out every day or if it's anorexia or bulimia. It's super important, especially with the platform I have, to be open and honest about that."

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Helpline toll-free at (800)-931-2237, chat with someone at myneda.org/helpline-chat, or text NEDA to 741-741 for 24/7 crisis support.

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